Blair plots PR coup in Palestine

It's that time of year again, when our leaders use the Middle East as a platform for moral posturing.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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The reality of UK prime minister Tony Blair’s peace mission to Palestine became clear yesterday. It’s being spun by Blair’s people as an honourable last-ditch effort to secure peace and justice in the Middle East before Blair exits Downing Street. It looks more like old-fashioned power politics, even coup-mongering.

Blair intervened in the tense stand-off between Hamas and Fatah by backing Palestinian president and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas’ call for early elections. He also promised £13million to Fatah, leading some in the Hamas camp to accuse him of ‘funding militias in a country on the brink of civil war’ (1). For all the talk of ‘pushing for peace’, Blair’s intervention looks set to entrench divisions between the two Palestinian blocs, emboldening Fatah to challenge the democratically elected Hamas both on the streets and in the courts. The PM’s stated aim is to ‘bypass’ (read isolate) Hamas, because it refuses to recognise Israel or fully to renounce violence. He warned Hamas: ‘The train should leave the station and it’s time to get on board.’ Strip away the peace rhetoric and Blair is delivering an imperialistic ultimatum to a foreign elected government: Play ball, or else.

Blair’s jaunt will also sour relations further between Israel and the Hamas-ruled Palestinian territories. Both US President George W Bush and Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert backed Blair’s intervention into Palestinian affairs. Olmert praised Blair’s ‘good and interesting ideas’, agreeing with the PM that it is time for ‘moderate [Palestinian] elements to be strengthened’. Olmert hinted that he will follow Blair’s example and release funds for Fatah, again bypassing the Hamas government (2). This will do nothing to ease tensions between Israel and Hamas, and it may even inflame Hamas supporters to take their frustrations out on an interfering Israel with suicide bombings. Whatever you think of Hamas – and I am no more a fan of Hamas than I am of Fatah – it is clear there is something destructive going on here.

Blair’s trip to Palestine highlights the dangers inherent in today’s moralisitic meddling in the Middle East. World leaders are turning Israel and Palestine into a platform for moral posturing, a place where they can pose as serious and well-meaning international statesmen attempting to resolve an age-old conflict and in the process bring peace and security to the entire world. And such fantasy imperialism is proving disastrous for the people who live in the region. It is deepening divisions between them, and upping the stakes in an already bloody and unpredictable conflict. The more the Middle East is transformed into a theatre for Blair and others to perform in, the less control the people of the region have over their lives and destinies.

Blair and other leaders are using the Middle East to search for a sense of mission. Indeed, Blair has intimately tied his personal and political standing to the Israel/Palestine issue. Speaking about the Middle East peace process in 2004, he declared: ‘I regard it as a priority. I regard it as something that I will feel a sense of personal failure over if we cannot get movement back into this process.’ As one headline put it, Blair has ‘made the Middle East his key test’: it is the arena in which he attempts to prove himself, test himself, demonstrate that he is an important political and historical figure (3). At a time when he finds it difficult to muster up much consensus at home – where he is questioned by cops over the honours-for-cash scandal, and where a recently-leaked memo apparently written by advisers close to Blair claims that his government has become a ‘shambles’ – the PM far prefers the faraway terrain of Israel/Palestine, where bigger things are at stake and he can pose as an historic peacemaker.

For Blair, focusing on the Middle East has also become a way of deflecting criticisms of his disastrous Iraq policy. More and more, Blair argues that the ‘key to peace’ in the whole Middle Eastern region – including in Iraq – is to resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict (4). So Iraq is a bloody mess, not because Blair and Bush invaded, but because they didn’t concentrate hard enough on resolving tensions between Israel and Palestine first. Wielding this cynical line, Blair manages to wash his hands of responsibility for Iraq while boosting his moral authority to intervene further in Middle Eastern affairs.

The extent to which Western leaders like Blair have made the Middle East their ‘key’ issue (in other words, their own personal-political fiefdom) is clear in the way they now discuss every big political problem as having its origins in Israel/Palestine. Everything from feelings of alienation among British Muslims to the emergence of new forms of nihilistic terror over the past 10 years to global warming (seriously) are said to be caused by the Middle Eastern conflict – and thus will only be resolved when that conflict is resolved. A report by a British think-tank recently claimed that British Muslims feel estranged from British society because of the government’s policy on the Middle East; environmental campaigners claim that a peaceful solution in the Middle East will help to combat climate change, because it will allow us to take a more rational approach to drilling for and using oil (5).

And it is commonplace for commentators and politicians to claim that 9/11, 7/7 and al-Qaeda-style violence more broadly is caused by ‘Muslim disgruntlement’ over the Middle East – despite the fact that none of these nihilistic killers has any connection with Palestine, and that bin Laden rarely spoke about it until Western commentators pretty much put the words into his mouth (see Bin Laden’s script: ghost-written in the West, by Brendan O’Neill).

Today’s obsessive focus on the Middle East has become a displacement activity of extraordinary proportions. Western leaders’ inability to inspire at home, and their failure to get to grips with issues such as alienation and new forms of terrorism, are explained with reference to the Middle East. The region is now seen as the cause of all kinds of global and political instability. At a time of profound political malaise and cultural confusion across the West, the conflict in the Middle East has become a kind of refuge – a place to play out political problems that seem intractable at home. It has become the one area where politicians and commentators can dabble in seemingly serious politics and define what they are for and against.

Indeed, it’s now common for both individuals and states to define their entire view of life and politics through the prism of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Beyond Blair’s ventures, this is clear in commentary circles in America and Europe, where some adopt a pro-Israel posture to indicate that they are pro-Western, anti-terrorism and in favour of law and order in international affairs, and where others adopt a pro-Palestinian stance as an easy way of showing that they are progressive, liberal and caring. Among some lazy thinkers, ‘Israel’ has become shorthand for Strength in the Face of Adversity, and for others ‘Palestine’ has become a symbol of oppression and victimhood which they adopt to make themselves feel like good moral citizens (see A proxy war of a different sort, by Mick Hume, and A shadow war performed for Western voyeurs, by Brendan O’Neill).

This decamping of Western politics and debate to the Middle East is inflaming instability and violence in the region. It is turning the conflict into something it isn’t, making a complex clash over territory and sovereignty into an apparently international war of values. This can only up the stakes, entrench divisions and encourage further stand-offs – as we can see in the battle between Fatah and Hamas over who will win most favour from international observers and thus take control of Palestine. The price of Blair’s and others’ adoption of the Middle East as their own ‘personal’ crusades is likely to be paid in the streets of Gaza, the West Bank and Israel.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Middle East

(1) Blair makes one last push in Middle East with Palestinian funding plan, Guardian, 19 December 2006

(2) Blair makes one last push in Middle East with Palestinian funding plan, Guardian, 19 December 2006

(3) Blair makes Middle East key test, BBC News, 29 September 2004

(4) Blair makes Middle East key test, BBC News, 29 September 2004

(5) See The Global Oil System and the Middle East, University of Michigan, 2005

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